With no respite from rising prices of rice and supplies of the cheapest variety from the National Food Authority still not enough to meet the demand, President Duterte and his Cabinet have approved a “free-for-all” in the importation of the staple.
The lifting of import restrictions means even the largest private companies can now bring in rice as the government moves to flood the market with the grain and consequently pull down prices.
Consumers will appreciate the easing of prices after months of continuous hikes. Among those who are unhappy, however, are local rice farmers, many of whom are among the poorest in the country. As the government moves to ease the surge in rice prices, it must also ensure that measures are being implemented to protect local producers.
Marginal profits in rice farming have compelled a number of agrarian reform beneficiaries to sell their lands and shift to other sources of livelihood. Youths in the countryside are increasingly finding farming unattractive, endangering the country’s food production and contributing to the neglect of national treasures such as the Banaue Rice Terraces.
Farmers’ groups have warned that flooding the market with imported rice could kill local production. Authorities must move to ensure that the warning does not come true. Without a source of abundant irrigation like the Mekong River, the Philippines may be unable to match the rice output of top exporters Thailand and Vietnam. But the Philippines can still produce a substantial amount of its staple. It must not give up pursuing rice self-sufficiency and even aiming to become a rice exporter.
In allowing the free-for-all in rice importation, the government must also intensify efforts to give rice farmers the support that they need, by providing ample irrigation and farm-to-market roads as well as access to high-yield seedlings, fertilizer, pre- and post-harvest facilities, financing and marketing assistance. The country remains largely agrarian, and poverty alleviation and inclusive growth hinge on providing sufficient support to agrarian communities.